As part of California's effort in the war on terror, state legislators this year proposed that trucks hauling hazardous materials be fitted with technologies that would allow authorities to seize control of hijacked vehicles--a law that supporters said should be passed "on an emergency basis."
The bill, however, was voted down after critics contended that the communication signals used in the proposed system could be easily commandeered by the very people it was supposed to stop.
Tech stands guard
Click on an icon on the map above to see some of the projects and technologies for the defense of each sector.
"Satellite or cell phone links can be jammed by even a dull terrorist with a $20 device," said California State University professor Bill Wattenburg, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory consultant and inventor of another kind of truck-stopping technology. "A smart hijacker can kill communications and make a truck go blind when he wants to move in."
The ill-fated legislation underscores the myriad problems facing the government agencies, law enforcement authorities and industry contractors charged with developing and purchasing technologies in the name of homeland security. As the nation rushes to spend billions of dollars on technology for domestic defense, the Department of Homeland Security remains mired in strategic conflicts, bureaucratic inertia, intra-agency rivalries and election-year politicking.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a pro-security stance has been a necessity for any national political platform, and the 2004 campaign has been no exception. President Bush has vowed to "continue to strengthen security at every identified vulnerability." Even Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has departed from the traditionally tempered Democratic rhetoric on defense, saying he will do "whatever it takes to make America safe."
But how much is enough? As with any political initiatives that are relatively free of opposition, homeland security programs have the potential to spin out of control without adequate oversight. That, in turn, could slow the fight against terrorism by wasting crucial resources and distracting government bodies from the mission at hand.
To address these issues, CNET News.com recommends a three-point policy agenda that encompasses concerns raised in scores of interviews with government officials, industry executives, policy researchers and taxpayer advocates: Change the "target-based" strategies used to assess terrorist threats today; enforce stringent oversight of spending, especially when secrecy rules limit public knowledge of contracts; and ensure interoperability of technologies and communication networks at all levels of government.
In addition, the government must throughout these reforms address privacy concerns that consistently dog proposals for new surveillance, identification and data analysis tools. Technology projects must respect constitutional safeguards of privacy, even as greater levels of information are called for in the defense against terrorism.
"You can collect all the information that you want, but unless you can get the right information to the right people, it doesn't really matter," said Gilman Louie, chief executive of In-Q-Tel, a CIA-affiliated venture capital firm, and member of the Markle Foundation's task force on digital security. "Historically we are, as a government, good at big defense projects but not big information technology programs. IT is a much murkier area."
The numbers seem to reflect that ambiguity. In a June report, the nonprofit National Taxpayers Union estimated that more than half of new homeland security funding since 2001--$164 billion--is being spent on programs unrelated to defense or response to terrorist attacks. As an example, the organization cited the renaming of the Agriculture Act of 2001 as the "Farm Security Act" after Sept. 11.
"As if chickpeas, lentils and mohair have anything to do with national security. One congressman even stated that a peanut subsidy, with a $3.5 billion price tag, 'strengthens America's national security,'" the 335,000-member group said. "Members of Congress have been cloaking old-fashioned pork in the robes of 'security' for the 'homeland.'"
Making matters worse, local districts that receive such security windfalls often have no idea what they are supposed to do with the money. As a result, many state and regional agencies are simply buying ambulances, fire trucks and other equipment that can be used for public safety but are not necessarily earmarked for homeland security--an accounting sleight of hand known as "supplantation" in the language of procurement.
These concerns were brought into sharp relief last year in a Rand study based on interviews with 190 "first responders," or emergency workers, from 83 organizations across the country. The workers "felt they did not know what they needed to protect against, what protection was appropriate and where to look for it," according to the report, which was conducted for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In remarks to emergency workers and business leaders last month in Arizona, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge acknowledged that improvements are needed in communication and direction but stressed his department's progress. "If you're thinking that there's more that we can do, you're right. But after three years, in every way possible, we've made a real difference in securing our people and our homeland. The successful integration of people and technology for a greater purpose has had a genuine result," he said.
Still, when specific security technologies do receive government funding, law enforcement and other agencies have been known to spend large sums on products and services that are unproven or have shown dubious results. So-called biometric technologies such as iris-scanning identification systems have encountered problems in Britain, where test versions failed to work for people with contact lenses, long eyelashes and watery eyes.
Many states, airports and agencies have begun using facial-recognition technology despite concerns among law enforcement authorities such as the Tampa Police Department, which abandoned its system because it had not helped catch a single criminal. Chicago police recently announced plans to install thousands of cameras around the city that track unusual movements by individuals, even though this "content analysis" surveillance technology has yet to be proven.
"Facial recognition got a lot of hype after 9/11, but it has problems," said Steven Gish, senior research analyst at Roth Capital Partners. "They don't have one that can do one-to-many matches. It is really good at doing one-to-one matching--when you are at a counter to get a ticket--but not picking a face out of a crowd."
The government's withdrawal of the "Total Information Awareness" project, which would have linked databases to compile composite "signature" behavior of terrorists, was a significant setback for the large-scale use of such security technologies. Groups such as the Association of Computing Machinery told Congress that the massive system risked opening the door to identity theft or generating "false positives" from imperfect analytical tools.
"We found there was no commonly accepted set of characteristics used for an effective national strategy," wrote the authors of a February report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. "The seven national strategies related to homeland security and combating terrorism vary considerably in the extent to which they address the desirable characteristics that we identified."